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On front lines of opioid epidemic, Tampa Bay cops add Narcan to toolkit

By Kathryn Varn
A Tampa Fire Rescue firefighter holds up a nasal spray applicator of naloxone, a drug that temporarily blocks the effects of opioid overdoses more commonly known by its brand name Narcan, in this file photo from July 2016. Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies have started supplying officers and deputies with the drug to protect the public and their own employees who may come in contact with powerful synthetic opioids. Andres Leiva | TIMES

The scene has become all too familiar.

A woman found slumped over in a running car. Police officers breaking through the window to get to her and the two children inside. A used syringe, silver spoon and lighter lying on the floorboard.

Opioids have infiltrated every demographic of every community across Florida, creating a public health emergency unrivaled since the pill mill crisis. And on that morning in August, one facet of combating the epidemic unfolded.

A Winter Haven police officer deployed an overdose reversal drug called Narcan. It was just two days after the police department had distributed the nasal spray, long used by paramedics and other medical personnel, to officers on the road.

The move by the department in Polk County is part of a growing trend to arm law enforcement officers with the drug to save lives and protect officers who may come in contact with powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl that can kill with just a few grains of powder.

In Tampa Bay, major law enforcement agencies have taken their own steps to equip their officers with Narcan through grants or from their own coffers.

"You want to give the officers the tools to be able to do something," said Clearwater police Maj. David Dalton, whose agency became the first in the Tampa Bay area last year to distribute the drug for public use.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Clearwater police first in area to supply officers overdose-reversal drug for use on public.

But while law enforcement is taking a generally unified approach to use the drug on the front lines of the epidemic, it hasn’t played out the same way everywhere. More than year after Dalton’s agency distributed naloxone, the generic version of the drug, officers haven’t used it once despite a rise in opioid-related deaths in the city and county alike.

Dalton attributed that to a few reasons. First, on a force of about 240 sworn officers, the department bought only 50 kits from state forfeiture funds, so there are limited opportunities. Second, the county — the most densely populated in the state — has an above-average response time for emergency medical calls. That means paramedics often arrive on the scene before police.

As of September, paramedics had administered 1,830 doses in the county, 231 of those in Clearwater, on track to outpace last year’s countywide total of 2,234 and citywide total of 262.

Still, to Dalton, it doesn’t take away from the need, not only for the public but for officers who come in contact with the lethal chemicals. In fact, the department applied for and received 216 more Narcan kits through roughly $356,000 in federal money distributed to the Florida police chiefs and sheriffs associations to provide agencies with kits, which contain two doses and cost $75 per kit.

"We hope we never have to use it," he said. But "there still is that need out there for people to be ready."

The only other major agency in the county to apply for the grant was the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, which received 260 auto-injector kits through a pharmaceutical company. Maj. David Danzig, head of criminal investigations, likened the drug to first aid kits or fire extinguishers deputies keep in their cruisers.

"We’d rather have it and never need it than need it the one time and not have it, especially with our own staff," he said.

He pointed to an incident last month in which deputies arrested three people on charges of trafficking in fentanyl from a motel in St. Petersburg. On a table inside the room, a bag with about 2 ounces was sitting open.

The deputies, clad in coverall suits and respirators, didn’t end up needing Narcan, but, Danzig said, "any time you come in contact with it, it’s a close call."

Other Pinellas agencies referenced the county EMS system as a main reason why officials haven’t equipped their officers with Narcan. The St. Petersburg Police Department found that fire and rescue personnel beat police to overdose calls almost every time.

"We don’t think that in a densely populated area like ours with the fire department having it, that it would be that useful," said spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez.

Across the bay, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office was awarded 156 kits, according to the sheriffs association. Spokesman Cpl. Larry McKinnon said the agency would release more details during a public announcement later.

The Tampa Police Department took a different approach. The agency spent about $45,000 of law enforcement trust funds and a private donation on 825 kits and supporting equipment, such as gloves, said spokesman Steve Hegarty.

"We have not seen it at the crisis level, epidemic level in our city that others have seen in other cities and other states," he said. "But we’re not interested in waiting for that happen. We think that is going to be a problem, and we want to be prepared for it."

In Pinellas, data shows fatal accidental drug overdoses are on track this year to surpass the record of 280 set at the peak of the pill mill crisis in 2010, according to the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s office.

Part of what makes the drugs so deadly is that consumers don’t know what they’re getting. Danzig remembered when fentanyl was introduced to the area in 2016, dealers were pressing it into pills that looked like Xanax, a popular medication used to treat anxiety.

"It’s so strong, it’s killing them," Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said during a news conference in March 2016 warning people not to buy the drug on the street.

Reta Newman, director of the county forensic laboratory, said she’s testing about 15 to 20 different variations of fentanyl, many of which haven’t been tested in a clinical setting, so it’s impossible to know how strong they are. The lab recently added Narcan for its staff just in case.

She saw a similar wide variety of drug variations during the rise of rave drugs such as MDMA at the turn of the century and synthetic cannabinoids, known more commonly as spice, within the last few years.

"It’s just this time," she said, "they’re the most deadly drugs that we’ve seen."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.